ANDREI GRUBER-BIZZY is the proprietor of La Gruber, the only hostel in Roşia Montană in western Transylvania, Romania. Twenty-six, wearing shades and a black beret, a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes always stuck in the breast pocket of his blue overalls, he is heir to one of the oldest and most eminent mining families in the region. The Grubers, originally German, moved here centuries ago, in search of gold and a bit of happiness. They seemed to have found it, at least for a while. Andrei’s grandfather, Alexandru Gruber, was a wealthy prospector, owning a number of cuxe (mining concessions), a supply store and a small advertising business. At some point in the 1930s, he bought the first car in this part of Transylvania, a humongous Ford. In the creased black-and-white photographs Andrei shows me, all the men are wearing tuxedos while the women are wrapped in white furs against the winter cold. They are on their way to the restaurant, perhaps, or the local casino, to spend the money they had just exchanged in the bank for the weekly crop of gold.
“The luckiest miners would binge and gamble all night,” Andrei explains, flipping slowly, reverently, through the pages of ancestral albums. “Some of them would go home in the morning in three carriages: the first one for the prospector himself, the second for his cane and the third for his top hat.”
At the time, Roşia Montană was still a booming mining town, as it had been for almost two millennia. The Romans founded Alburnus Maior (the Roman name for Roşia Montană) in the 1st century AD and kicked off the first real gold rush, with engineers, miners and artisans from all over the Roman Empire flocking here, to the Dawson City of the ancient world. They constructed elaborate trapezoidal galleries in the hard rock of the Carpathians, hundreds of metres underground, following, like junkies, the bulge of the gold-bearing veins. When the Roman Empire finally fell apart—for even the fabulous wealth of Alburnus Maior couldn’t sustain its profligacy—the clinking of pickaxes in the dark never really ceased. The feudal lords of the Middle Ages took their share of the pie, and so did the Austro-Hungarians, who ruled these lands for several hundred years. By the mid-20th century, there were more than 140 km of galleries and mineshafts in the surrounding mountains, a whole separate labyrinthine world, where movement in space also meant movement across time, where one step could equal several weeks of someone’s life.